Crime Week, Day 7: Alpha Dog

We bid adieu to Crime Week not with a particularly rare or celebrated crime film, but an underappreciated one: 2006's Alpha Dog.  Plus, during these rough times, I wanted to cover a truly worthy film that you can currently add to your collection for next to nothing.  As of this writing, the average used price of this blu on Amazon and other sites is $3.  You know, just in case you want to give yourself a break from the wallet-gouging collector's editions packed with tchotchkes and hardcover books you're never going to read.  There are quality releases of just as great films out there that won't sap your bank account.
I remember Alpha Dog kind of flopping when it came out, although looking it up on boxofficemojo, I guess it actually did reasonably well for a low budget crime flick.  I just remember people, both critically and in my real life, being very dismissive of it, treating it as a dumb, juvenile piece of trashy exploitation.  It took extra lumps because, while it wasn't quite his first role, this was pre-Social Network and people were still dubious of Justin Timberlake as a potentially credible actor.  And he was surrounded by talented up and comers who were collectively easily written off as MTV bait.  It doesn't help that writer/ director Nick Cassavetes has a shaky track record either.

But if you get past all the overreactions and preconceptions, you find a really great story, expertly told.  I believe it's actually Cassavetes' greatest work - a poignant tragedy about the under-supervised youths of Hollywood getting in over the heads playing at being gangsters.  When they kidnap someone's younger brother over a drug debt, they realize there's no turning back and the only way out they see is to kill the kid, played with real soul by Anton Yelchin.  It's heart-breaking as he doesn't even try to escape, feeling like he's just hanging out and partying with his older brother's friends, when the viewer knows right from the beginning where this is all headed.  This is a very different role for Bruce Willis and an impressive performance from Sharon Stone, although the filmmakers make an unfortunate choice for her at the very end of the film, which I won't spoil here, but I'll just say it takes you out of the picture in a way they couldn't have wanted.
And admittedly, that's not the only mistake.  This film gets it right 98% of the time, really nailing its portrayal of young adults too immature to see how they're misdirecting their lives trying to emulate pop culture portrayals of glorified crime.  They're young, they're rich, they're dumb and their parents are complicit.  It's an embarrassing phase of wasted privilege they would've all grown out of eventually, but unfortunately for them, it was suddenly too late.  Every once in a while, however, the filmmakers themselves seem to fall under the same spell their characters do, and the movie occasionally lapses into trite genre fare.  Like, at one point an exasperated character exclaims "fuck me," and then it hard cuts to two of the characters having a very porno-like sex scene, and you say to yourself, har har, I get it; that transition gag was written by a thirteen year-old boy.  Or for another example, there's a fight scene between some drunken teens in a house-party, where they're suddenly doing grossly over-choreographed flying kicks and crap, allowing the stunt guys to indulge their Jackie Chan fantasies.  And Harry Dean Stanton, who we all love, feels like he's acting in a different movie than everybody else.  So yeah, there are imperfections, but luckily they're not too overwhelming and you get past them relatively early in the film.  You might be looking askance at the screen with your arms crossed at the beginning of this picture, but once you get into the second act, the film really finds its groove and you'll be pulled into some genuinely moving drama.
In 2007, Universal issued Alpha Dog as a new release on DVD in both Full Screen and Widescreen versions.  Remember when that was common, or have you already blocked those dark times out?  Anyway, it didn't come out on blu right away, because Universal bet on HD DVD.  So that was its only HD release for a while.  But eventually 2010 rolled around and the format wars ended with a definitive victor, so they finally gave Alpha Dog a proper blu-ray release, as a 2-disc combo pack with the Widescreen DVD.  Later, the same blu-ray disc was also included in a 2011 double-disc set with the remake of Assault On Precinct 13, which seems like a pretty arbitrary pairing, but okay.
1) 2007 Universal widescreen DVD; 2) 2007 Universal full screen DVD;
3) 2010 Universal widescreen DVD; 4) 2010 Universal BD.
2010 Universal widescreen DVD left; 2010 Universal BD right.
To start with, all the widescreen editions are in 2.35:1, although the blu-ray zooms out to reveal a couple extra pixels worth around the edges.  The Full screen version, meanwhile, bears a shocking comparison to the anamorphic versions in 1.33:1, chopping off the sides so much, entire characters are dropped out of frame.  It is a full pan and scan job, though, so you'll eventually get to see everybody important on screen.  And in terms of clarity, it's a surprisingly strong difference, and detail that was lost in a soft haze on the DVD comes alive on the blu.  Looking at the grain (which is completely washed away on the DVD), this is no UHD, but it's much more authentically captured and filmic than I expected.  This is not another Monster situation with an old transfer screaming for another scan; it holds up quite well.

All of the above versions include the same 5.1 mix, plus a French dub, also in 5.1, with English, Spanish and French subs.  The only difference is that the English track is in DTS-HD on the blu, though the French track is the same lossy mix as the DVDs.
Extras are the same across the board: a single eleven minute featurette with behind-the-scenes footage and soundbites from Cassavetes and the cast.  It's a little better than your average promo featurette, but just barely.  At eleven minutes, you just can't go in-depth.  It's better than nothing, and it's worth watching if you own the disc (which, again, is more than you can say for some of those promo pieces), but it's disappointing in terms of exploring the film and especially in terms of information about the real crime.  Every time I've watched this with someone, we've immediately googled the real crime to find out what happened to the last character - something the DVD would've been ideally suited to have the answer to.  Strictly speaking, there is an in-menu text thing with brief quotes from the real-life witnesses, but it's not even a video extra at all.
So yeah, extras are the weak point here.  The current blu's a fine edition of the film itself; it's just not the special edition one would hope for.  At this point, though, I don't think we're going to do any better than that tacked-on Precinct 13 remake.  On the other hand, Alpha Dog is real cheap and easily found anywhere; you can't say it isn't a fine deal for the price.  And most importantly, it's a great movie.

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